From jerk chicken and flying fish to conch and callaloo, the Caribbean’s cuisine is as distinct as the islands themselves. This is a region of one-pot wonders and tangy marinades, where the beach barbecues are boisterous and street-side shacks dish up food to remember. So grab your cou-cou stick and get stirring
01 Lechón Asado
Puerto Rico and Cuba
A whole suckling pig, turning on a spit-roast over a fire, is the highlight of any celebration in both Puerto Rico and Cuba — it’s brown and crispy on the outside, and the meat is tender and smoky in flavour. In Puerto Rico it’s served in lechoneras — anything from a stall, a roadside shack or a full-on restaurant — and eating lechón asado is almost a national addiction. There the young pig is marinaded in salt, pepper, garlic, oregano and culantro (wild coriander), whereas the Cuban variety uses mojo criollo, a marinade made up of citrus juice, garlic, cumin, and oregano. Try Lechonera Los Pinos in Guavate, Puerto Rico.
02 Crabes farcis
Guadeloupe and Martinique
The French influence on these particular Caribbean islands can be seen in this stuffed crab dish. But what makes it quintessentially Caribbean is the additional flavours used — cayenne pepper, thyme, Scotch bonnet pepper and even rum. The meat from the crab is then mixed together with bacon, breadcrumbs that have been soaked in a little milk, shallots, peppers and parsley. This fragrant mixture is then spooned back into the crab shells and grilled. Try Chez Carole, located in the middle of the open-air market in Martinique’s capital, Fort-de-France.
03 Conch & dumpling and callaloo
St Maarten/St Martin
The national dish on the Dutch side of this Caribbean island is conch and dumplings. This large sea snail — with the texture of squid — is removed from its shell before being pounded and then pressure cooked with seasonings. The dumplings are made with flour, which helps thicken the sauce from the conch into a rich, delicious gravy. Come carnival season, you’ll be able to get this hot and spicy dish all around the festival village. Meanwhile, the national dish on the French side of the island is callaloo, a lush soup made from greens, cubes or strips of pork, hot pepper, okra, black pepper, thyme and chicken stock. However, while undoubtedly a St Martin obsession, callaloo is also pretty common across the Caribbean.
04 Macaroni pie
Sometimes just called ‘pie’ in Barbados, this is an island favourite, which, despite the name, is quite different from macaroni cheese as most of us know it. This is much simpler to make. Firstly, all the ingredients are added in one go to the cooked pasta; secondly, there’s hot sauce and Bajan spice in there too. The traditional recipe uses evaporated milk, ketchup, mustard, cheese, milk and egg, and it’s usually served as a side dish. Pie is sold from the back of vans parked up and down roadsides across the island, as well as appearing on Sunday lunch buffets.
05 Fungee & pepperpot
Antigua and Barbuda
Fungee are cornmeal and okra dumplings, which, when served together with pepperpot form the national dish of Antigua and Barbuda. Beloved across the Caribbean, pepperpot is simmered in a large pot and features whatever meat is available — this could be salted beef or pig tail. The vegetable component historically depended on whatever was grown on the island — okra, squash, potatoes — flavoured with onions, garlic, herbs, spices and Scotch bonnet pepper for a little kick. Look for little roadside shacks serving up this island favourite.
06 Goat water
A delicious stew made from cubes of male goat meat, which, despite the name, isn’t really that watery at all. It’s usually cooked in a special pot on a wood fire, which imparts a smoky aroma, and there’s a fine art to getting it right — the texture can’t be too thick or too thin. The dish is flavoured with garlic, marjoram, thyme cloves and mace, with a dash of rum optional. Goat water is the national dish of Montserrat, where it’s eaten at celebrations and mopped up with a chunk of bread. Head to The People’s Place, Fogarthy Hill in Saint Peter, to give it a try.
07 Green fig & saltfish
The green figs in St Lucia’s national dish aren’t green figs at all — they’re unripened bananas, boiled in salt water like potatoes. The island used to be one of the world’s largest banana producers and the abundant fruit was used as a staple to feed slaves. Meanwhile, saltfish — often cod — was a good source of protein, especially when perked up with local spices. Recipes have been passed through families for generations, and today it’s particularly popular as a weekend meal. You’ll find it in restaurants across the island, served as breakfast, lunch or dinner.
08 Ackee + saltfish
This is Jamaica’s staple breakfast made from the island’s national fruit, yellow-fleshed ackee, which is then combined with salted fish. Ackee was brought to the Caribbean from West Africa by colonialists in the mid-1700s. They also came with supplies of salted fish — a procedure used through the region to preserve fish without refrigeration — and it’s still a staple to this day. The saltfish is soaked to remove much of the salt and allowed to rehydrate before it’s flaked and added to boiled ackee (which resembles scrambled eggs) and seasoned with Scotch bonnet peppers, onions and tomato. It’s traditionally served with fried flour and suet dumplings and green bananas, and you’ll find it at dozens of little eateries in Kingston and elsewhere across the island.
This soup-like stew takes its name from the word sancochao, used to describe a person blistering or stewing under the sun. It’s a one-pot meal that’s been eaten in Dominican homes for centuries. The main components are beef stock and pieces of beef, various starches (yucca, plantain, squash, potato, sweet potato — whatever’s available) and sweetcorn.
10 Oil down
The national dish of Grenada, this is another one-pot dish that, depending on the size of the pot, can feed two people or an entire village. The island’s favourite soca singer, Tallpree, even dedicated a song to it. You start by adding salted pig tail, seasoned chicken, dumplings, breadfruit, callaloo (made from young dasheen leaves), bananas, turmeric, coconut milk, pimento peppers, herbs and spices into the pot. What comes next depends on availability and, of course, the cook’s taste, but additions can include conch, yams and christophene (a rough skinned, pear-shaped vegetable also known in the Caribbean as cho cho and chayote). Oil down is often served at times of celebration as well as at Spicemas, Grenada’s carnival.
Trinidad and Tobago
Roti is a Hindi word meaning bread. This dish was originally brought to the Caribbean by Indian labourers, but it evolved under the influence of many of the Caribbean’s different culinary cultures. Today, however, it’s very much a speciality of Trinidad and Tobago, where it’s served in two styles: dhalpuri and buss up shot. Dhalpuri roti are always filled with slowly simmered, spiced split peas, and served still intact, whereas buss up shot literally means ‘burst up shirt’ — here the roti dough is ‘bursted up’ while being cooked with butter or ghee on a flat grill or on a tawa pan, giving it a ripped-up texture that becomes bubbly with crispy bits. Fillings include chicken, mutton, goat, sweet potato and other root vegetables.
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